THE BLOG
08/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Eating Fish, Eating What?

Recent history has never included fish being an easy thing to eat, prepare or enjoy in one's home. Many people have omitted it from their diets outright. Many enjoy it in limited doses but never prepare it themselves. Some of us go out of our way to try and eat it but the effort is much greater than the reward... overcooked, undercooked, "it's too fishy" or the lack of satisfaction in the belly when compared to a thick steak. The average consumer, in many cases, goes to great lengths to put fish on their tables. (Lemons were $1.50 a piece in southern California last summer, for crying out loud.)

More recent years have added something else into this already complicated mix... fear. The fear of mercury poisoning is a real threat to fish eaters. The consumer has been warned that large fish like Tuna, Swordfish, Mackerel, Shark and the like carry high levels of mercury. Therefore it is advised to limit larger fish meat in one's diet. Pregnant women are to strictly limit their intake of this type of fish. This fear has been public knowledge for years now and there doesn't seem to be an end for it. What does it mean exactly to have highly abnormal levels of mercury in some of our greatest food sources within the ocean? Are there even bigger consequences on the horizon? Pollution is a major culprit. Are there other elements we can work against to change?

I don't believe that the general public has the answers to these questions, nor do I think that the general public is keeping these questions top of mind when they shop for fish at the market. Do you think anyone other then food industry professionals and or scientists are wondering what the long-term effects are to the world if the fish in our oceans are carrying toxins at levels that make them dangerous to eat? This seems like a question worth finding an answer to at some point here. Scratch that - this is something we need an answer to yesterday. It is time to play catch up on this fish dilemma. We are playing catch up in every sector of the economy right now so let's not forget what's most important to us... our food. Why should we rebuild any sector if we can't sustain ourselves with clean food to eat. The fish dilemma: To eat fish or not to eat fish. Are fish the nexus for the entire food crisis? Healthy and natural fish stocks in our bodies of water are as important as anything.

Food for thought; eating beef is probably as natural as eating a swatch of polyester. Beef is a topic for another day, but think of it this way: I doubt any "regular person" will ever kill a steer with their bare hands and eat a porterhouse in their kitchen later that night. But on the other hand, with fish this sort of "hunter-gatherer" thing happens everyday albeit less than it use to. Fish are one of the few last great natural catches the planet has to offer. We should think of it as the "right to bare fishing poles" and our right to eat what we catch. Let's spread some of our efforts regarding the "right to bare arms" over to the "right to bare fishing poles". Now that sounds like a delicious recipe from the book of health and natural ideals. It should be said that one who casts off a normal pier is not likely to catch a top-of-the-food chain head banging, heavy metal infused, Blue Fin Tuna. But it's pretty safe to assume that whatever one does catch, at this point in time, would only be appetizing to a person who hasn't eating in a while.

Fish has been getting into more people's diets through a single phenomenal word... Sushi. Sushi is being consumed in epic quantities across the world. The younger crowd can't get enough of it... addicts in some cases. However, older generations in America just don't eat Sushi. They don't understand it. Eating Sushi is against every food rule that older folks spent much of their lives abiding by. The first of those rules would be "cook your food to kill the germs"... need I go further? Maybe they're right? The consumption of Sushi in the US has grown by five hundred percent of the past ten years. As a result, over consumption has caused a collapse in the ocean's stock of Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna, the "King of Sushi." Sushi is adding to our dependence upon fish farming. As fish farming is on the rise, populations of wild fish are declining. Being that Sushi is expensive, maybe the downturn in the economy will help us to give these fish a break. Sushi is a multi-billion dollar industry. Would it help our environment if we boycotted Sushi altogether?

On Earth Day this year, I was fortunate to watch "Call of the Killer Whale," a documentary by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques' son. Cousteau's film was both informative and utterly frightening. Killer Whales a.k.a. "Orcas" are presented as the Human Beings of the Sea -- top of the food chain. Orcas are dying. We learn they are decreasing in population do to the bio-accumulation of heavy metals such as mercury, nickel, lead, arsenic and cadmium. What is this telling us? It suggests that we view the Orcas' crisis as a look in the mirror to our own. Another big problem is that there is no longer enough wild Chinook salmon (their primary food) for them to eat. What's even worse is, as the movie points out, the salmon fisheries may indeed be adding to their decline instead of helping as many in the general public may have assumed. Wild fisheries are created out in the same bodies of water therefore adding an unnatural element to the ocean as well as contaminating it in it's own right. Sea lice infestations have proven to be not only dangerous and harmful inside these fisheries but to the wild salmon living naturally in the same body of water.

In the most shocking part of the documentary, Cousteau and his scientists are guinea pigs for a test of environmental toxins in their own bodies, the same toxins found to be at high levels in Orcas. They are tested for PCBs and PBDEs. The results are alarming. You must watch it for yourself. This test for toxins seems to be another bit of information vital to the well being of the general public; yet again we are under informed. The scientists are tested to learn about the Orcas. Should we all be tested to find out the toxicity of our own bodies? I think so.

At the fish market, the average consumer is so uninformed about what fish are good to eat that looking through the glass case and pointing is equivalent to hitting a button on a vending machine with signage in a foreign language. Many consumers believe that eating farmed fish is a good thing. It's complicated and we need more information. At least the stores are including where the fish is from on title cards now, but what does it really mean to eat a fillet of Orange Roughy from South Africa. We are eating things that we know nothing about, some of which by eating them it is ill affecting our planet. Let's change it. If we are what we eat, let us at least know what it is first.

So at this point, we seem to have heard the beginnings of a conversation that we all should be having and paying close attention to. Whether you're a gourmet chef, an environmentalist, an NRA member or an average "Joe Six-pack", please take interest. Sarah Palin, could you help with this? For more worry, research Chilean Salmon Farms.

To get more involved join the Ocean Futures Society. Follow and support the California legislative efforts, which are being made to restore natural salmon runs in the northern part of the state. Remember this is a National issue so no matter where you live take an interest in supporting "wild" fish. Watch "Call of the Killer Whale" at www.pbs.com

Other helpful links:

The section of the film regarding the "test for toxins" is nicely segmented at www.fora.tv - it is clip #9. http://fora.tv/2009/04/16/Call_of_the_Killer_Whale_Jean-Michel_Cousteau#fullprogram

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society:
http://www.oceanfutures.org
http://web.mac.com/oceanfutures/Jean-Michel_Cousteau_Season_3/Home.html